Saturday, July 16, 2005

Angels Among Us

Walt and Plum

Sixty Stryker tires were strapped five-high into the belly of a C-130 cargo plane heading for Mosul. After weeks of riding in a Humvee with CSM Mellinger and crew, at times sharing a dusty but air-conditioned tent in Baghdad with bold mice, it was time to go "home."

Each day Stryker tires get blown off, sometimes sailing hundreds of feet before landing smoldering on a rooftop, or a car, or the ground. So the belly of the airplane was filled with replacement tires, and three passengers: an Australian Naval officer, a US Army officer, and me.

While away from Mosul, I had assiduously tracked the news, but the news just doesn't do it, not even over here. Email was little help unless answers like, "When you come back you'll find out" and, "You know damn well I can't tell you what's happening unless you are here," count as informative. Even as the airplane lofted into the sky, Deuce-Four was conducting a raid, hauling in explosives, mortars and other deadly devices.

The C-130 landed in Mosul and the Stryker tires and stowaways tumbled out onto the blistering runaway, as scorching exhaust blasts from the still-running engines added to the haze. Inside the airfield shack, military phones were not working, so I could not call the 1-24th Infantry for a ride, leaving me stuck at the airfield. But soldiers are usually quick to give someone a ride, so when I spotted a sergeant who looked like he was going somewhere, I asked for a lift. Strangely, he had never heard of 1-24 Infantry.

"You never heard of Deuce-Four?" I said. How could someone in Mosul not know Deuce-Four?

"Of course I've heard of Deuce-Four," the sergeant replied.

"Well Deuce-Four is the 1-24th Infantry Regiment. That's my unit."

"You're a civilian?"

"It's sort of my unit."

"I'm not going that way, but hop in and I'll give you a lift."

We rumbled down the dusty road to FOB Marez, and when I jumped off the big truck, soldiers in the back handed down my gear, waved goodbye and rumbled away. I walked past the guards at Deuce-Four and they welcomed me back.

I dropped off the bags in my trailer and headed to the TOC (HQ), and found everyone smiling-- they had just hauled in a major weapons cache. When they welcomed me back, too, I thought: it's good to be home, even when home is at war.

Deuce-Four Capture in Mosul

I spent much of the night at the TOC getting caught up on the ever-changing Mosul. Soldiers showed captured enemy video of a sniper attack in Baghdad. An American soldier was walking near a Humvee when crack! he was knocked flat by a bullet. His gear stopped death's dispatch at the door. He was stunned but jumped back to his feet ready to fight. After finding cover, the soldier located the sniper. The enemy continued to tape the whole thing: right up to the moment the soldier and his buddies caught the sniper and video team. While that attack turned out okay for our soldiers, snipers have become an increasing threat. Just recently, Arnold Duplantier was shot down with a sniper's bullet through his heart.

Catching up on the events, I heard stories of raids capturing High Value Targets (key leaders), more homicide car bombings, and the continued progress of the Mosul Police and Iraqi Army.

Next morning came early, but provided a chance to reconnect with my neighbors, the snipers and members of recon platoon. There was Walt Gaya, from Argentina originally, but proudly serving in the American Army. A photographer who plans to study photojournalism when he gets home, Walt had taught me some important things about photography. But the first thing I learned is that he doesn't like digital cameras. Doesn't like the quality. Walt shoots in black and white, with this little Leica film camera that costs more than some fishing boats.

The Streets of Mosul

Walt's eyes serve him well as a sniper, and though some people call enemy snipers cowards, anyone who knows anything about war knows that it takes guts to be a sniper, no matter what team you are on. I get the strange feeling that he'll become a great photojournalist, if he survives the war. But for now, something bigger than the future holds him here.

Walt doesn't talk about it, but the first thing to draw the eye in his room is the small shrine he keeps for his roommate, "Plum," who was killed in battle. Walt misses Plum immensely.

The Recon platoon is comprised mostly of young men. Combat has padded the age of most of these veterans, although you wouldn't know it from the ferocity of the fight still in them. Along with Plum, they lost another buddy, Benjamin "Rat" Morton, who was killed on a raid not long ago. In fact, of fifteen snipers in the company, five have been killed, and nearly all the rest have been wounded.

Walt is one of 11 Deuce-Four soldiers scheduled to receive their US citizenship in a ceremony in Baghdad on 25 July. This long and bureaucratic process will allow some of our soldiers fighting for Iraq and the United States to become American citizens, and partake in the democratic process and freedoms that allow people like me to roam the planet and write.

While the sun was still rising into the day, I made an appointment to see Walt later that night to look at some of his new black and white prints. When we said goodbye, neither knew that he would not return from his mission that night.

But this morning, the plan was to go downtown with Deuce-Four, visit police at different stations, and check on their continued progress. Before departing the base, we had the normal briefing, where Captain Jodway, the intelligence officer, warned about a severe car bomb threat today. The Strykers are a popular target for car bombers.

While we were rolling downtown, calls came over the radio that bombs had just exploded in cities across Iraq, including one that exploded nearby in Mosul, killing about five policemen. With another American unit responding, we continued our mission--meeting with police chiefs.

The grinding details of getting Iraq on its feet might be more tolerable if the backdrop were not so thick with smoke-smudged, blood-spattered wreckage. Having seen Poland and other countries rise uncertainly to stand after years of oppression, I'm no stranger to the rapidly changing laws and political intrigue in post-dictator societies. Politics, particularly the real politick that still plays out in the dwindling shadow of communism, is fascinating.

But in this climate of bombs and bullets, it's nothing short of excruciating to sit through yet another meeting, especially one like this, where the police chief seems especially keen on getting a new and larger desk. When we finally walked out into the open air, with all the charred, blasted and bullet-pocked walls before us, I asked LTC Kurilla if he ever got tired of hearing all the dribble and trivial requests, everyone always wanting that extra little cut for themselves, figuring Uncle Sam's so rich, he'll foot the bill.

"Every now and then, I would like to just hear a thank you--and not have it followed by the next request," he said, as we loaded the Strykers and moved out.

Watching the screen from inside the Stryker, the soldiers spotted a white car that matched a vehicle the army had been hunting. Our soldiers blocked the car, dismounted and ascertained the identity of the men, who were then detained with flex-cuffs. Meanwhile, mindful of the previous night's briefing and all the recent sniper attacks, I was taking photos but found myself constantly seeking new cover from sniper fire that might be no more than a breath away.

When the Deuce-Four soldiers started loading their two detainees onto the Stryker--crack! A sniper fired. The bullet raced toward us at about one-half mile per second. At that speed, even if the bullet strikes a helmet, or the armor-plating that covers chests and backs, the impact alone can kill. The supersonic bullet was heading straight into the back of a Stryker . . . where bang! It punched a hole through a metal seat, barely missing a detainee and the American soldiers next to him.

Nobody knew all this yet. All we knew was crack! The shot had come from behind me. Within half a second, I was down, swung around on a knee; so fast that some soldiers thought I was shot.

Specialist Chris Espindola and another soldier started laughing. Nobody finds cover faster than me; there is no chance that I will ever be recognized for gallantry in combat. Given how death has a way of interfering with writing, I am okay about that. But seeing them laughing made me think perhaps it wasn't a sniper; maybe one of them had fired a warning shot. Didn't sound like an American weapon, though.

I asked, "Did you fire a warning shot?"

They were still chuckling, oblivious we were under sniper attack. But not for long. Soldiers in our Stryker shouted, "Contact, contact, contact!"

A group of soldiers were already running in pursuit of the sniper. LTC Kurilla and his dismounted crew took chase, and I took chase behind them, wearing all kinds of fire retardant and protective gear, for some refreshing wind-sprints in the Iraqi heat. Kurilla stopped for a few seconds, just long enough to tell a man to get his kids inside, then bolted off after the enemy. We ran and walked some blocks, with the four Strykers maneuvering around us, but we never found the sniper. Winded, we loaded up and drove back to turn over the detainees, grab lunch and roll right back out into Mosul.

Later that evening, the Recon platoon and the snipers, Walt among them, headed downtown on a mission of their own. Mark Bush was driving one of the Strykers when he parked to allow observation of some key terrain. Directly atop a bomb. Within seconds, Mark got the willies about the parking spot, and just as he was about to come over the radio BLAM!

The heavy Stryker flew into the air, blasting tires asunder, one tire flying more than a hundred yards. The explosion was so hard that it traumatized the tailbones of the men. The blast ripped through the bottom of the Strkyer and straight into an AT-4 missile, cutting the missile in half, but neither the missile nor the propellant exploded.

The fire extinguishing system blasted away, the place was completely dark--the back hatch was jammed, but the tiny emergency hatch was blasted open, yet was behind ripped metal that would cut any survivors or rescuers to ribbons. There was no light whatsoever in the smoke, dust and fire extinquishers.

Nine men were in the Stryker. The force of the bomb blew off everyone's protective glasses, and the exploded fire extinguishers covered everything inside the smoking Stryker with powder. Some of the soldiers were unconscious; others thought their legs or feet were gone.

The device had been planted beside a large water main. The big water pipe burst, flooding the road and the Stryker in a small fast moving river. A large part of Mosul lost water. Emergency calls went out, helicopters spun up, and men prepared for battle.

One soldier on the ground ran to the wreckage, but there was so much dust and smoke that he was at the wrong Stryker. Another Stryker driver saw the water in his thermals and thought it was fuel flooding on the ground, and knew that any second everyone would die in flames.

Mark Bush was still in his driver's seat. The blast hit behind him, throwing him against his seatbelt, and wrenched his shoulder. He was so dazed it took a moment to realize something had happened. Skewers of white-hot metal from the explosion had ripped into the Stryker. Walt was closest to the blast.

The helicopters launched to provide security over the site, wounded were evacuated to the combat support hospital, all while combat power and recovery assets raced through the streets from other parts of Mosul.

Walt and "Rat"

All the men returned to duty within a day or so, except for Walt. They are all limping around, peppered with cuts, shrapnel and bruises, showing me the marks on their faces and bodies, and Mark's stiff shoulder seems mostly lame. He can't use it for now. Scotty, another sniper, is upset because his platoon sergeant won't let him go on missions until he can prove fit for combat by running on a treadmill. "I'm okay," Scotty said yesterday while sunning himself. "I can't just sit on base all the time while my friends are out there. . . . This sucks."

But for Walt, his war is over. Doctors say he will recover, but he needs eye surgery, and he is out of action. Perhaps he can pursue photojournalism in peace, but Walt will miss the citizenship ceremony in Baghdad.

After seeing the damaged Stryker, and being unable to visualize how human bodies would have to be arrayed in order to fit in what was left of it, I had to ask. I found Mark Bush and asked him how they all escaped being killed.

Without hesitation, Mark looked straight at me and said: "We had angels watching us."

My face must have given away skepticism, so he said to me, "Mike, did you see what it did to the Stryker?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Well, there is no other way to explain how we survived, except that Plum and Rat were there, and they stopped the blast. I know they were there. Plum and Rat held up their hands to save us. They stopped the blast. They were there."